DAN HANDELMAN of Portland Copwatch came up with a pretty sneering nickname for the new anti-homelessness effort Mayor Charlie Hales and his staff appear very eager to launch.
"The secret 'sit-lie' group," he jokes.
It was easy to see how he got there.
Hales' calendar for Tuesday, June 25, listed a "homeless task force" meeting that his office confirmed was the first part of a promise to holistically tackle two related problems: homelessness and aggressive panhandling downtown. But that meeting was closed to the public. I know because I asked if I could come and was told I could not.
Also worrisome: the list of seven non-city participants, which I requested and published the morning after, seemed tilted toward the forces of law and order.
The Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—authors of a failed bill meant to help restore discriminatory "sit-lie" laws—had a representative, former Assistant Police Chief Lynnae Berg, who lobbied for that bill, HB 2963, in Salem. Berg was joined in Hales' office by members of the police bureau, the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.
Hales was there, and so was his chief of staff, Gail Shibley, along with embattled Public Safety Director Baruti Artharee and two policy analysts, Chad Stover and Matthew Robinson.
Only three spots were left for social-services providers. Marc Jolin of JOIN and Ed Blackburn of Central City Concern made the cut. But the final person, Doreen Binder of Transition Projects—operator of city-funded shelters—had joined the PBA in lobbying legislators for the new sit-lie bill.
No one was there from the groups opposed to the sit-lie bill, the ACLU of Oregon or the Oregon Law Center. And, interestingly, no one was there from the Portland Housing Bureau or the office of the commissioner newly installed to run it, Dan Saltzman.
No wonder Handelman cracked wise. Was this limited group really going to make up the "task force" Hales would rely on for policy solutions? The answer, it turns out, is no. Not exactly, at least. And hopefully not because journalists started poking around his plans.
Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, now says "task force" might have been a temporary misnomer. This was just a gathering of experts—some who'd approached Hales during his campaign. The mayor, he says, will keep talking to more advocates. Then he'll start a task force.
"In no way would he have said this is an inclusive group," Haynes says. "Far from it."
For what it's worth, Blackburn and Binder both told me Hales didn't come in with an agenda, he mostly listened, and he was interested in far more than how to improve sidewalk enforcement.
He was told of the recent one-night count of homeless people. He heard about the mental health and poverty challenges confounding providers and cops.
Binder said she was "pleased" to see, for a change, a mayor directly taking on the issue instead of handing it off to a housing commissioner.
But how diverse will Hales' education—on what could be a legacy issue—really be?
"You can't coach a baseball team just by reading a book," says Ibrahim Mubarak, spokesman for the Right 2 Dream Too rest area in Old Town. "A smart person, a wise person would include the people being affected."
That would be a truly groundbreaking approach to this issue. But Hales' office didn't answer that question one way or the other.